When the San Mateo Union High School District transitioned to remote learning last March, 25-year Mills High School culinary arts teacher Jan Tuttle decided to make lesson plans so students could use Zoom as little as possible.

“There was a steep learning curve when we first made the switch last year, which pretty much happened over a weekend. This fall, I was much more prepared and wanted students to start in the kitchen right away,” said Tuttle.

Before the pandemic, students typically prepared meals in groups or collected and examined fruit, vegetables and herbs from the school garden. Since the switch to virtual learning, however, reliance on peer and teacher assistance has had to remain minimal.

“When they’re working in the classroom, there’s always somebody who will take the lead, but when they’re by themselves, they’re the ones that have to make critical decisions and do the whole lab, as well as their cleanup,” she said.

The culinary arts course is part of a pathway offered by the district’s Career Technical Education program, which prepares students with the hard skills required to launch their careers, as well as job interview training, resume preparation and networking opportunities.

“The CTE program is designed to help students learn in a very hands-on and authentic way, and we especially want to serve historically underserved groups of students,” said Allison Gamlen, district CTE coordinator for the San Mateo Union High School District.

Students can choose from a variety of pathways, ranging from culinary arts to biotechnology, and the program uses Bay area labor market data to ensure funding and courses accurately reflect the region’s job opportunities.

“When students know that their training means something, they get excited about it. It’s not just a worksheet that gets graded and goes into the trash can. All of their work has some kind of viable outcome,” said Gamlen.

Samantha Ho, a 2014 Mills High School graduate, had always enjoyed baking but solidified her decision to pursue it as a career upon taking relevant coursework and receiving encouragement from Tuttle to participate in Family, Career and Community Leaders of America, a national student organization with an 18-year old chapter at Mills.

“Being able to compete and seeing positive results from it was reassuring for me,” Ho said of her FCCLA experience during high school.

She went on to complete a food science degree and has since worked for regional establishments such as Dandelion Chocolate and Liholiho Yacht Club. And while many of Tuttle’s students don’t pursue a culinary career, they often become involved in programs such as FCCLA for other professional development skills.

Brittina Hung held various leadership positions within the organization, even earning the title of state president her senior year, which she credits with preparing her for a career in nursing.

“As a nurse, you’re the leader for your patients’ care. You talk to the doctors, pharmacists, dietitians and everyone else in the interdisciplinary team. Between FCCLA and Mrs. Tuttle’s courses, it all really prepared me for this,” she said.

While CTE programs are critical for career readiness, the switch to remote learning has called attention to inequities in resources among students. The district has worked to provide Chromebooks and hotspots to those who need them, in addition to ready-made kits for pick-up, but teachers of hands-on classes like Tuttle’s find themselves filling gaps beyond technology.

“Teachers can’t assume that everybody has the ingredients to make a pasta dish or cupcakes, so one way they’ve pivoted is by doing an informational interview with a family member about a recipe from their family or culture, hoping there’s a stronger likelihood the student would have those ingredients around at home,” said Gamlen.

Not only does it use what’s currently available in students’ kitchens, but she said it enhances professional skills like conducting interviews.

Virtual schooling’s impact on student learning and development varies greatly though, and for upperclassmen interested in career paths such as culinary arts or the trades, cultivating their interest over Zoom presents unique challenges. For Ho, the emphasis on in-person experience during her training in high school, college and beyond was something that always drew her to the profession.

“Part of the reason that I chose this career was because I knew that I couldn’t sit still in a cubicle for the rest of my life. I enjoy doing things in person and feeling my products with my hands … so I feel like [online learning] would have been harder for me to get through personally.“

Despite the downsides, however, Gamlen said remote learning has allowed students to speak with industry professionals across the country, and Tuttle remains optimistic about new skills her students are gaining at home.

“It’s very rewarding for them to share the final product with their families, and they would not have that experience if they were in the classroom,” she said. “The feedback that I’m getting is that they like the fact that they’re away from Zoom and not sitting in a chair looking at the camera.”

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